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Although the February 22 earthquake damaged the city of Christchurch, the rest of beautiful New Zealand is intact and welcoming, and now offers true bargains. The Kiwi starter city is Auckland, connecting nonstop to the world, and worth a stay-over. A quarter of New Zealanders live in and around this friendly, outdoorsy capital on the north island. The area’s hundred-plus cultures mean sophistication too, with arts, museums, fashion, crafts, fresh food, local wine, and nightlife in abundance. So “Kia ora” -- welcome to New Zealand.
5... City of Sails
Auckland sprawls on an isthmus between the gulf and the ocean. Catch a ride at the historic Ferry Building (Queen St., central Auckland) and climb Rangitoto island -- one of the area’s 48 (extinct or dormant) volcanoes -- for panoramic water views including Waitemata Harbor, the Cormandel Peninsula, and the Hauraki Gulf.
Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum provides an historical overview (corner Quay and Hobson Sts., Viaduct Harbour, 09-373-0800, free). Exhibits include the history of the uber-competitive America’s Cup races.
The best way to appreciate the City of Sails is to get on the water. Explore NZ (kiosk on Viaduct Harbour, 09-373-0800) has daily sails on an America’s Cup yacht where you can become part of the crew. Or go dolphin and whale watching, with daily cruises offering commentary amid the 30 gorgeous Gulf Islands, including Waiheke, Great Barrier, Tiritiri, and Matangi.
On shore, dine waterside at Euro, for local seafood and steaks (22 Princes Wharf Quay St., center Auckland, 09-309-9866). At nearby, award-winning Soul Bar and Bistro (Viaduct Harbour Avenue, center Auckland, 09-356-7249) you can sample small and large plates of Kiwi faves, including green-lipped mussels, and kumara, a Maori staple similar to sweet potatoes.
4... Exploring Central Auckland’s ‘hoods
The city’s charming, walkable neighborhoods offer distinct architectural styles and settings, from the iconic clock tower at the University of Auckland, to the Victorian houses backing up to lush Albert Park, with its fig trees, bandstand, fountains, and statues.
Newmarket’s Boulevard and Parnell Road are popular shopping areas, as is Queen Street, which runs from the waterfront to Karangahape Road (K’Rd). Victoria Park Market displays Pacific-Rim crafts and goodies from wine to honey to creative fashion. And for designer clothes, check out High Street and the Chancery.
In center city, O’Connell St. Bistro offers fine dining: South Island salmon, braised rabbit, and goat osso bucco (3 O’Connell St., Auckland, 09- 377-1884). A popular boutique hotel is Mollie’s, near the center city (6 Tweed St., St. Mary’s Bay, Auckland, 09-376-3489). Modern art and antiques combine with opera arias and candlelight at dinner.
For clubbing, Kiwi’s like 1885 Britomart, in historic surroundings, featuring three unique bars spread over three levels (27 Galway Street, Britomart, Auckland). SnapDragon, Bar & Bistro a bistro has a retro feel and harbor views (204 Quay St.,Viaduct Harbour, center Auckland, 09- 357-6147).
3... Art…and animals?
Auckland is the world’s largest Polynesian city, and Maori and South Pacific treasures are displayed on three vast floors at the Auckland Museum (Auckland Domain, Parnell, 09-306-7067, free). Scars of the Heart exhibits New Zealanders from past warriors to present peace-keepers.
The two-building Auckland Art Gallery, opened in 1888, specializes in European art, Maori portraits, and paintings of old New Zealand (Wellesley and Lorne Sts., center Auckland, free). And for modern art fans, New Zealand’s first contemporary art museum, The New Gallery, is right across the road.
Family fun: At the Auckland Zoo, besides enjoying local flora and fauna, you can wash-down an elephant and see Africa’s “big five.” (Motions Rd., Western Springs Park, Auckland). At Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World (23 Tamaki Dr., Orakei, Auckland, 09-528-0603), hang with King and Gentoo penguins or swim with sharks and stingrays in a tank, or snorkel in the aquarium.
2... Action/adventure around and about Auckland’s areas
Just north is the Rodney district. Near thermal hot pools in Parakai Springs and Waiwera, collect limpets and periwinkles on the rocky shore. In lower Kaipara harbor, sail, swim, fish, and horseback ride along the beach. Settled by Croatians, Kumeu vineyards have cellars open daily. Bike, bushwalk along country roads, and even surf – you’re never far from a beach.
Near Warkworth in the Matakana vineyards area, you’ll also find Kiwi sheepskin and wool clothing and can watch dogs herd the flocks (Sheep World, 09-425-7444) Then stroll among the giant kauri trees at the Parry Kauri Park.
The multi-cultural Manukau region, south of center Auckland, offers even more vineyards in rolling countryside. Maoris arrived here in 850 AD, and the English followed about a thousand years later. Howick Historical Village in Pakuranga showcases restored 19th century buildings. The Botanical Gardens sets sculptures amid native plantings (102 Hill Rd., Manurewa, Auckland, 09-267-1457, free). For little ones, Butterfly Creek offers a butterfly house, miniature trains and a farm zoo. And Rainbow’s End is New Zealand’s largest theme park.
Further south, the rural Franklin district, framed by the Hunua ranges, offers challenging walking tracks at the mouth of New Zealand’s largest river, the Waikato. And west is the scenic Waitakere region, with rainforests, secluded beaches, and a wild coastline. The Art and Heritage Trail here links local artists’ studios and galleries.
1... Bungee: tower or bridge?
Bungee (or “bungy”; either way it’s one exhilarating leap of faith) started in New Zealand. And in Auckland, you have two spectacular choices from which to jump, fall and hopefully spring back, tethered to a rope.
Choose the Harbour Bridge and you get an hour-and-a-half climb on custom engineered walkways, with a 360-degree view of Auckland and environs. At a specially-constructed “Bungy pod” you'll leap out over the harbor, by ankle tie or harness; solo or in tandem. And you can touch the water (on the Auckland Bridge, center Auckland, 09- 361-2000).
The highest jump is from Sky Tower, the tallest building in the southern Hemisphere (corner Victoria and Hobson St., center Auckland, 09-363-6000). Inside, restaurants include one that revolves, plus bars, casinos, and a theatre. From the Sky Deck, the view stretches across the city and environs.
But the most thrilling view is when you take the SkyJump (corner Victoria and Federal Streets, 09-368-1835). You’ll leap from 630 feet, falling about 12 seconds at over 50 mph.